A Generation Without Public Passion

Clinton's chief legacy to the young was to drain politics of idealism

Has Bill Clinton inspired idealism in the young, as he himself was inspired by John F. Kennedy? Or has he actually reduced their idealism? Surely part of the answer lies in Clinton's personal moral lapse with Monica Lewinsky. But more important was his sin of omission—his failure to embrace a moral cause beyond popularity. The main story was not too much private passion but insufficient public passion.

Even if Clinton had offered a better human example and a more compelling political agenda, young people might have remained civically inert, because larger social forces have atomized their political will. The Clinton years have sharpened a great paradox: The surface of American life looks smooth, prosperous, peaceful. But underneath, fault-line shifts in family and work life have led us into what some have called "advanced insecurity." Replacing an old society based on marriage and employment, the philosopher Jerald Wallulis argues, is a new society based on marriageability and employability. Many of the young aspire to happy marriages and dot-com fortunes but end up in guarded love and okay-for-now jobs.

That young people's commitment to improving society has faded may turn out to be the most significant fact about the Clinton years. In his The Cycles of American History (1986) Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that the alternation between periods of reform and periods of conservatism in American history has a generational pattern: "In basic respects it is the generational experience that serves as the mainspring of the political cycle ... Each new generation, when it attains power, tends to repudiate the work of the generation it has displaced and to reenact the ideals of its own formative days thirty years before." Schlesinger had in mind the children of the 1930s who embraced the liberalism of the 1960s, among other examples. But the cycle of reform and activism was frustrated by the politics of the 1990s. Bill Clinton and Al Gore are sixties men, and could have inspired the young to draw on a sixties tradition of progressive activism. Clinton did establish AmeriCorps, a Peace Corps for the nineties, and he did pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, and he did try for universal health care. But it was hard for the young to get excited about welfare reform that took money from poor mothers, or about the Freedom to Farm Act, which withdrew support for small and medium family farms, or about increases in the military budget when the Cold War was over. All else was gridlock, compromise, spin, and cynicism. Will that be Clinton's legacy—that he drained politics of idealism and discouraged generational renewal? The combination of Clinton's stay-in-power agenda and our privatizing times has frustrated what Schlesinger saw as the "systole" and "diastole" of politics. And current evidence on civic disengagement should give one pause as to how that cycle will play out in the future.

In Bowling Alone (2000) the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam reported a decline in trust among people in their twenties and a rise in malaise and unhappiness. In fact, Putnam noted, "surveys in the 1940s and 1950s had found that younger people were happier than older people ... By 1999, however, younger people were unhappier than older people." In The Ambitious Generation (1999) the sociologists Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson showed that American teenagers are now spending more time alone (three and a half hours a day) than teenagers used to, and spending more time alone than they spend with family and friends. All this has set the stage for a decline in civic engagement among the young. Putnam noted that 49 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds in 1972-1975 said they read the newspaper daily; in the Clinton years 21 percent of that age group did so. Forty-two percent of young people reported signing a petition in 1972-1975; 23 percent did so in the 1990s. Fifteen percent of young people in the 1970s reported joining a union; five percent so reported in the 1990s. Nineteen percent of young people in the 1970s reported attending a public meeting; eight percent did so in the 1990s. Thirteen percent of seventies young people but only seven percent of nineties young people reported writing a congressman. Thirteen percent of seventies young people but only six percent of nineties young people reported serving as an officer or a committee member of a local organization. According to a survey of freshmen at the University of California at Los Angeles, even participation in student elections declined, from 75 percent for high school students in the late 1960s to 20 percent in the late 1990s. An early-1970s survey of UCLA freshmen revealed that about 45 percent of the young considered cleaning up the environment to be an important personal goal. Today only 19 percent feel that way. It would seem that as global warming has grown worse, the response to it among the young has grown weaker.

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